It doesn't come as a surprise that Manchester isn't a city which is mad on fish. We are entirely landlocked and unless you are into canal crayfish and the odd minnow that is accidentally released from the claws of a heron, we are more than sceptical when it comes to seafood.
But times are changing. It’s getting easier to get fresh fish and shellfish over here, and with that – more restaurants are stocking and specialising in seafood.
Basically, the term ‘shellfish’ refers to all the things that live in the sea that aren’t fish – all the molluscs (snail-y things), crustaceans (crab-like creatures), echinoderms (starfish) and food that doesn’t really look like food. Below, I’ve picked out a few of my favourite bits and let you know where you can get your paws on them here in Manchester…
Crab & Lobster
I think the best place to start would be with the sub-category of crustaceans- think prawns, crab and lobster. Scottish and Cornish crab from our rainy shores is delicious and considered to be some of the best in the world. Simplicity is key with crab and I think it is best dressed in a little mayonnaise, black pepper, lemon and served on some crusty toast.
Any decent fishmonger will have crab available for you to buy, and I hear Manchester Seafood is now stocking live King Crabs (a.k.a spider crabs) too. Those are the ones that you see them fishing for on Deadliest Catch- you know the ones that grow 120cm in length with those long spindly legs that haunt your nightmares.
However, if cooking and tearing apart a metre long crab at your dinner table is too much for you to start with, a more entry-level dish might be Soft Shell Crab. This is considered a delicacy throughout Asia and consists of a small crab that is eaten during the in-between stages of growing a new exoskeleton-so it can be bitten without having to break through a tough outer shell.
Soft shell crab is most typically battered in tempura and served with a dipping sauce which is all well and good, but the Krabby Patty from Solita which slaps it in a burger with lettuce and sriracha mayo is an absolute game changer.
Lobster, which is always the most expensive and most desirable feature of a menu has the texture of a king prawn but it’s much sweeter and delicate in flavour. Frustratingly, you do not get a lot for your money as the meat is pretty sparse and difficult to extract from the legs and claws- which is the only annoying thing.
Lobster is classically cooked Thermidor– topped with cheese, cream and brandy and baked in the oven which you can try at Don Giovanni. Unlike most fish, Lobster goes well with cheese, and it is even a delightful addition to Mac & Cheese which is on the new menu at The Lowry Hotel- once you try it, you will never look back.
I think lobster is better paired with lighter flavours and grilled like the one on the menu at Tattu which uses the simple flavours of wasabi, lemon and lime which lets the natural taste of the fish really shine through.
Mussels & Oysters
Now there is something I have to admit at this point before moving forward. I know as your guide on this shellfish journey I am expected to be a connoisseur of all things from the sea, but the truth is a lot of it really freaks me out- especially the ones that don’t have eyes, or faces, or limbs, or brains. Be that as it may, I do eat some of it, and I do like it, so I will do my best to be impartial and unbiased against those slippery little buggers.
Interestingly, I really like raw oysters. I don’t know if it is something to do with the fact that you don’t chew them or because I am unapologetically middle-class- but either way, I can concur that oysters are indeed a delicacy.
To eat them, the chef will crack them open with a knife ( this process is called ‘shucking’) before you scoop the flesh to detach it from the shell and knock it back like a salty, slimy vodka shot. They are typically served over ice with Tabasco, lemon or shallot vinaigrette.
They go really well with champagne, and if you want to do this traditionally, you should look no further than Randall & Aubin- Manchester’s only seafood specialised restaurant which keeps style and sophistication at its very core. However, the Asian- fusion flavours of yuzu juice, tobiko wasabi and pickled cucumber from El Gato Nego are a pseudo-religious experience in their own right.
Mussels are a similar shape to oysters but are much smaller and have a smoother shell. They are never eaten raw but are best served steamed which opens up the shell to reveal the little nugget of flesh inside.
I reckon Moules Mariniere is the best way to eat mussels- cooked in white wine, cream, garlic parsley. This dish comes from France and is a quick lunchtime favourite in little Parisian cafes and provincial seaside towns alike.
The result of this cooking method leaves a thin soupy sauce which is just asking to be mopped up with some bread after you are clattered your way through all the shells with your now sticky fingers. You can get it at Brasserie Abode, and if you close your eyes and stick your head over the bowl, you might think yourself in Marseille. C’est Magnifique!
Scallops & Cockles
Scallops are probably the most popular shellfish- and for a good reason. They are small, sweet and tender with a subtle taste of the sea. Chefs love them because they are diverse and go with a lot of intense flavours such as pancetta, black pudding, garlic, lemon and tomatoes.
I like the ones on the starters menu at Hawksmoor for their simplicity- cooked with a splash of white port and lemon, but the roasted scallops from Australasia are out of this world too. They come with apple and ginger puree, pickled apple (which I could eat all day) seaweed and wasabi which I must admit it was sceptical about- but the complex spice went really well with the sweet scallop. I highly recommend them.
I do want to give a little shoutout to cockles though. They are small miniature clams which can live in both salt and freshwater, and they are really delicious.
Maybe because they are small, they do not feel overwhelmingly alien when you chew them, or perhaps they are just delicious. They are pretty scrumptious when they are pickled too, but if you want to be converted go and try the Popcorn Cockles from Common– they are so good you will be shovelling them down your throat faster than you can say… well, anything.
I could go on and talk about razor clams, whelks, or the horror that is the geoduck (look it up and thank me for the nightmares) but I think they gross so I might leave it there.